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CERN | Geneva | Switzerland

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Thanks, Sasha!

Last week, a typically unassuming email from BBC radio producer Sasha Feachem landed in my inbox and made my day. Sasha’s programme, The Infinite Monkey Cage, presented by celebrity physicist (now there’s pair of words you don’t often see together) Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince had just won a gold medal for the best speech programme at the Sony awards, the UK’s most prestigious awards for radio. That doesn’t happen every day. It has not happened, in fact, for 15 years: the last time that a science programme took the top prize in any category. Congratulations Sasha and all the monkey cage team. It’s a great achievement.

What’s even better, though, is that this is not a one off, but part of a trend. Science is becoming increasingly fashionable everywhere. At last year’s International Conference for Particle Physics in Paris, a public event packed one of the city’s largest theatres to the rafters. In Germany, the Weltmaschine exhibitions and events have been keeping physicists busy in their spare time. Artists of all kinds come knocking at CERN’s doors. I’m writing this at 36000 feet on my way to London, where among other things I’ll be attending a launch for Charles Jencks’ latest book – the Universe in Landscape, which features a chapter about CERN – and visiting a London-based German filmmaker who’s inspired to make a movie featuring CERN. Angels and Demons was just the start. Austria’s Ars Electronica festival this year revolves around science, with CERN in a leading role, and our Director General will be speaking at the Hay festival of literature and the arts. Oh, and before I leave London, I must remember to pick up a copy of Hells Bells, a new children’s book inspired by the LHC. After watching the children’s TV series, The Sparticle Mystery, certain younger members of my household have developed an appetite for science-based fiction (even if the science is a little flaky to say the least). Some 300000 people now follow CERN on twitter and the slightest whisper of news from the LHC brings the world’s media to our doors. I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Science is the new cool. Let’s keep it that way.

It matters that people are talking about science. And it’s great that the LHC is helping to put science on the popular agenda. In the modern era, science increasingly underpins everything we do; yet there’s been a growing trend towards popular apathy and even hostility to science. When we’re all increasingly having to make science based decisions, that is not a healthy state of affairs. You care about the climate, but how do you understand what’s really going on? You can’t live without your mobile phone, but is it bad for your health? You don’t want your kids to get measles, mumps or rubella, but wasn’t someone saying that the vaccine is dangerous? Science needs to reengage with society so that people are better equipped to deal with questions such as these.

But let’s get back to Sasha. I never throw emails away, so I’ve still got the first one she sent me, dated 13 September 2006. It spoke of a most unfeasible plan for radio 4 to devote a full day of programming to particle physics, something so totally unprecedented that it would obviously never happen. Yet that email led to a meeting of minds at CERN between our Director General and Radio 4’s Controller, and ultimately to radio 4’s big bang day. Little did we know at the time, but that was not a one off. It was an early part of a trend for science to reengage with society. Thanks, Sasha!

James Gillies

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